When one resigns from a job, one typically leaves without any sort of payout. You receive a final check, you get paid out for whatever vacation you’re owed and then you turn in your keys and walk off into the sunset.
The departure of Hartnell Community College Superintendent and President Patricia Hsieh, who was hired just last July, is being portrayed as a “mutual agreement” for her resignation. But given that the school is paying her $225,436.40 from its general fund, and that for weeks the board has had a closed session agenda item referencing the dismissal or separation of a public employee, it seems like the agreement is less mutual and more in the vein of, please don’t sue us, just take the money and go.
As one faculty member tells me, “The college is having to eat the cost of a very expensive mistake.” And as another Hartnell employee with knowledge of the situation tells it, Hsieh lawyered up at the first closed session agenda item that suggested a dismissal was about to take place.
The terms of Hsieh’s departure are laid out in a document titled “resignation and release agreement” posted to the board’s agenda in advance of a June 16 meeting. “The District and Employee believe that it is in their mutual best interest to terminate their employment relationship and avoid any dispute on the terms of employee’s departure from the district.” The agreement, it states, is a compromise of “potential claims” (code for “lawsuit”) without admissions from either side. In exchange, Hsieh has agreed not to sue. There’s a non-disparagement clause attached to it, meaning neither side is allowed to smack talk the other, and a confidentiality clause as well, meaning neither side is allowed to talk about it at all.
What led to the fracture, given all of the legalese, might never be known. Hsieh did not answer questions, but sent a generic statement about her accomplishments in her seven months at Hartnell, including “to learn about the culture of Salinas Valley” – something she’d barely begun. Spokesperson Scott Faust says beyond the board packet, there are no other relevant documents – like a resignation letter.
While the board was enjoined from talking, the faculty wasn’t. And in a phone interview before the meeting, Faculty Association President Christine Svendsen says she planned on telling every board member they needed to resign – not for their inability to keep Hsieh, but for hiring her in the first place.
“It’s quite a mess and we warned the board, and here we are,” Svendsen says.
During the recruitment process, when there were three finalists left, members of the Hartnell community and some civic leaders in Salinas began lobbying the Hartnell board to restart the selection process. They objected to the lack of Latino candidates among the finalists and asked that the job requirements be revised to encourage more Latino representation. The president of the Academic Senate at San Diego Miramar College, where Hsieh served as president for more than 13 years, alleged that Hsieh was being bounced out of that institution for “long-standing serious problems at our college driven directly by her appalling management, dishonesty, retaliation, and for particularly poor relations with the [Academic Senate].”
“We asked the board to slow the process and start over,” Svendsen says. “The candidate forums were not spectacular, we let all the faculty know it and we took a lot of flack for the way we put ourselves out there.”
With her having been in the job less than a year, it’s impossible as an outsider to say what kind of job Hsieh did. She was a visible presence in certain parts of the community, and served alongside Weekly Publisher Erik Cushman on the county’s Workforce Development Board; he describes her as very engaged and very smart.
Nearly 100 people joined in the Zoom call for Hartnell’s June 16 board meeting, in which the board voted unanimously for the separation agreement.
Svendsen did indeed call for all members the board to resign. “They have a fiduciary responsibility, yet they’re asking us to cut $2.5 million a year from the budget for the next two years while paying her a quarter-million dollars,” she adds. “Nobody resigns and gets that kind of money. They’re trying to cover this up.”